Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Gallery opening Saturday in New London

ALVA Gallery
54 State St., New London, (860) 437-8664
Nancy Friese: New Works from Nature
June 22—July 28, 2007.
Opening reception and artist gallery talk: Sat., June 30, 5:30—7:30 p.m.

Press release

Artist Nancy Friese herself speaks most eloquently about her work and the impact nature has had on her subject matter and method.

"Landscape painting is a composite of things seen, remembered and felt. By studying nature's phenomena, I tie visual observations to experience. With unpeopled views, scenes and vistas, one can enter a more philosophical, personal and timeless place. I grew up looking outward from the cliffs of the great lakes and the prairies of the northern plains. Treetops bays, rivers, forests, shorelines, rocks, fields, and the human landscape edging these places fed my imagination. I remain in that world through the paintings and prints of nature close-at-hand."

Friese's richly textured, vibrantly colored canvases vividly convey that statement from the heart and soul of an artist. Ranging in size from small (15" x 28") works, to large (72" x 84") works, Nancy Friese brings the joy, accuracy and immediacy of plein air painting to the eyes of the viewer. Works depict forests, ponds, lakes and paths through the natural environment that the artist is so clearly enamoured of. This exhibition takes landscape depiction to a level that is unusually beautiful.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sunday reception for Loomis show at Claire's

Claire's Corner Copia
1000 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 562-3888
Henry L. Loomis: Works on Paper and Canvas
July 1—July 31, 2007.
Artist Reception: Sun., July 1, 4—7 p.m.

Press release

"I love the joy I get from being creative," says Harry Loomis."I mainly paint and draw, attaining much of my artistic inspiration from animals, my religious beliefs, my family, and other artists."

Loomis is a 1968 M.F.A. graduate from the Yale University School of Art, where he studied with artists like Al Held, Lester Johnson, Jack Tworkov and Bernard Chaet. He also recalls that the Color Study classes there, based on the teachings of Josef Albers, had a strong influence on his development as a painter. Albers was most noted for his abstract explorations of how colors interact in chromatic progressions. Loomis has applied Albers' point of view in even more surprising, imaginative and vital ways. Loomis also studied on
e summer at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine.

Shortly after graduating from Yale, Loomis began experiencing symptoms that were later diagnosed as schizophrenia. "Schizophrenia," he says, "can contribute to the making of good art-art that is different and fresh, and therefore better." He is currently a member of Fellowship Place.

Loomis frequently paints figures merging with landscapes, both rural and urban, employing an awareness of subtle, powerful, and potential energies which reveal ever newer visions which emerge from the depths into light, and resolve into positive thought forms. Loomis' historical outlook also peers into the spiritual beauty and texture of 14th century painter Petrus Christus, the 2-dimensional story worlds of Henry Matisse, the anti-gravity of Fernand Leger, and the underlying transformative geometry of Piet Mondrian.

For thirty years, Loomis has exhibited his work in group shows, including exhibits at Munson's Gallery in New Haven, the Chris Butler Group in Branford, Rose Farm Gallery in East Haddam, the New Haven Paint & Clay Club, and the Margaret Bodell Gallery in New York City. He has had one-person shows at the York Square Cinema Gallery and two solo shows at Yale University's Pierson College. His work was included in an Art Across America exhibit for artists with Disabilities and a Very Special Artists show in Hartford, where he was awarded 1st Prize.

There will be an artist's reception for the Loomis show at Claire's Corner Copia restaurant this Sunday, July 1, 4—7 p.m.

New Haven Library gallery opening this Saturday

New Haven Free Public Library Art Gallery
133 Elm St., New Haven
Al Coyote Weiner: Voice of the Artist
June 22—July 26, 2007.
Artist Reception: Sat., June 30, 2:30—4:30 p.m.

Press release

Alan Weiner is an adjunct professor in Film Studies at Fairfield University. His journey as actor, singer, writer, professor, and artist has spanned the east coast of the U.S. from New York to Florida, and England. In the 1960s, he landed several minor acting roles, and creatively learned to find ways to support himself. He was able to secure a place with Lee Strasberg, a prominent acting coach, for lessons and advice.

Weiner spent time in Coconut Grove, FL, where he wrote and published his poetry, and later returned to the University of Bridgeport for courses in literature and writing. He furthered his studies in Western Europe and considered a Fulbright Scholarship offer for studies in India or Africa. He ultimately earned his M.A.C.W. in Creative Writing from Antioch International University, in Oxford and London, England, and later established a long list of creative writing credits including copywriting, songwriting, promotional literature, and freelance articles. He has authored a one-act play accepted for production at the National Theater of Australia, and has written an original full-length screenplay.

Weiner discovered his passion and voice as a performer, developing an eclectic resume of performance experience, from community theatres to voice-over. He studied at the Yale Drama School as an actor and as a student playwright.

Alan considers himself foremost an artist, and has found his voice in singing, acting and most recently painting.

There will be an artist reception at the Library gallery on Sat., June 30, 2:30—4:30 p.m.

City Gallery opening on Saturday

City Gallery
994 State St., New Haven, (203) 782-2489
City Gallery Welcomes New Member Judy Atlas
June 29—July 29, 2007.
Opening reception: Sat., June 30, 3—6 p.m.

Press release

The City Gallery will be showing watercolors and monotypes by new member artist Judy Atlas, wall sculptures by Connie Pfeiffer and charcoal drawings by Jefri Ruchti. (A show by Ruchti at City Gallery in January was reviewed here.)The show runs from June 29 through July 29, with the Opening Reception on June 30 from 3—6 p.m. You can “Meet the Artists” on Sunday, July 22, from 12—4 p.m. The gallery is open Thursdays through Sundays from 12—4p.m. Admission is free. Please call (203) 782-2489.

Atlas creates abstract watercolors and monotypes that are bold and vibrant in color and line, inspired by the natural and organic world around us.


John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull Street, New Haven, (203) 624-8055
Invitational Show of Painting and Drawing
June. 9—July. 8, 2007

There is no particular theme that runs through Invitational Show of Painting and Drawing, the present show at the John Slade Ely House. But the pleasure of mark-making on a surface is a noticeable touch point for many of these artists.

With Anne Doris-Eisner, this pleasure is poured into energetic landscapes of natural forms and textures. Doris-Eisner is showing four large acrylic works on paper in one of the upstairs rooms. While there is clearly a joy involved in the creation of these drawings, they are also the outgrowth of and a response to personal tragedy. According to her artist's statement, "Having faced the death of my child, I liken my survival to that of a tree struck by lightning which still puts out new branches." The sweeps of paint suggest sedimentary stone, striations of decaying wood, the rush of water and the rolling contours of hills. The images look like they were composed with big wide brush strokes but that apparently is not the case. According to her statement, she "rarely" uses a brush in a traditional manner, preferring instead to "draw, scrape, pour, crave, drag and twist the media with objects other than brushes."

Most of our earliest acquaintances with mark-making is referenced in Thomas Hebert's drawings. He uses color crayons for his large but delicate drawings of toy trains. There is a sense of soft affection and nostalgia in these renderings. He lightly defines the outlines and details as though gently tracing the tips of his fingers over childhood memories.

I've profiled Bob Gregson before. He is represented in this show by some of his "Constructed Paintings". His work is displayed in the foyer and on the walls along the staircase. He assembles wood blocks, often painted, into shapes that amount to something of a geometric puzzle.

In contrast to Gregson's austere yet playful minimalism, Kim Sobel creates florid paintings, applying a mix of acrylics, gamsol, oil, oil medium and wax on linen. Sobel's works are abstractions that are strongly suggestive of flowers, foliage and other natural forms. The colors are rich and the selective use of wax on the surface adds variety. But while I enjoyed the colorful energy of these works—again there is the evident pleasure in marking a surface—I was also bothered by the sense that they failed to cohere as compositions.

That Rhea Nowak is consumed by mark-making is evidenced by the several artist's books she has on display. The pages overflow with scribbles, washes and curlicue lines. They represent the idea of text and pictures rather than the fact. Gabriela Galarza-Block's oil paintings also jump with marks, like the lines, ladders, circles and dots of "Deconstructive." In some of the paintings, the forms of houses are suggested. This is made most explicit in "Familia." The overlapping images of houses bring to mind family in the sense of many who live under the same roof and yet are in completely different places.

Although Amanda Durant's work, like that of Thomas Hebert, is representational, there still stirs the sense of pleasure in marking a surface. This is most obviously true in her encaustics. But it also shows in the keenly observed (predominantly) urban landscapes where she used charcoal or gouache.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The write stuff

ALL Arts & Literature Laboratory
Erector Square, 319 Peck St. Building 2, New Haven, (203) 671-5175

As with many, if not all their shows, the Arts & Literature Laboratory's Interleaving show offers works that incorporate text. (I've been a little slow on the uptake about this—it is the Arts & Literature Laboratory, after all.) Some works hint at narrative, others are forms of visual poetry and at least one is a hilarious polemic.

The pieces by Sue O'Donnell and Donna Adams play it coy. O'Donnell's "Past" is a twist on the X-Files verity that "the truth is out there." In this case, the truth is "in" there, "there" being illuminated glass boxes holding jumbles of cut-up reminiscences of past relationships printed on transparency film. In her statement, O'Donnell declares that it "represents a timeline of stories and symbols that describe intimacies and secrets based on personal life events specific to boyfriends, lovers and acquaintances." They may be illuminated but they aren't illuminating. But the larger point is made: that the elements that make up the past run together and are ultimately unknowable to those who haven't lived it.

Adams, "Storyboard 1" and "Storyboard 2" are colorful intaglio prints that overlay blocks of text printed in color. But while the text does hold meaning—according to her statement, it recounts "bits and pieces of my childhood"—it isn't truly readable. Lines ride on top of each other. Colors blend. The cut shapes of blocks of text take visual precedence over the content.

Obscurity is written into the very fabric of the works of Irene Miller, Carole P. Kunstadt, Banjie Getsinger Nicholas, Paulette Rosen and Tessa McSorley. Unrelated but complementary, they share a gallery wall. Miller's "Warum Nichts" incorporates reproductions of the German script from letters written by her parents. With "Sacred Poem XIV" and "Sacred Poem XV," Kunstadt cut and then wove together pages from an 1844 Psalmody. The paper is discolored with age and the type is miniscule. It isn't possible to read the fragments, exactly, but the fine stitching and the attention Kunstadt has lavished on them convey a prayerful reverence.

Not all are subtle. Sarah Buckius' "I'm Impressionable" series consists of six photos of the artist with commands impressed into her forehead. It is a commentary on the way some people—including the artist, apparently—internalize others' expectations of them. The images are cropped so as not to show her mouth, silencing her so she can't talk back.

In the "not subtle and definitely hilarious" department is Rita Valley's artist book "God Hates Artists." The evidence? "God created critics, curators and art dealers." "God thinks making art is a waste of time." Valley employs a cut-up ransom note aesthetic for her polemic.

Howard Oransky
's "The Last Wall" is from a series called The Shrouds. He uses text that is a fragment of a poem in Hebrew by Aharon Zeitlin: "I, among the most lonesome/ The last of Jewish remnants/ I am your destroyed temple's/ Last remaining wall." The lines of poetry are hand-lettered on canvas. Hanging in front of it is a long sheet of fabric with three images transferred as monoprints. To read the poetry we look through translucent imagery of suffering and loss. At top, a hand is outstretched as if in death. In the middle, a gaunt man with sunken eyes stands before a background of a stone block wall. On the bottom, there is a depiction of a ruined temple. In one sense, we have to look past the images and what they represent to read the poetry. On the other hand, the poetic lament reinforces the anguish portrayed in the monoprints.

Linda Ohrn-McDaniel
uses fabric to express more joyful sentiments, sentiments that commemorate memories as a means to consecrate a future. With "A Glimpse of My Heart," she created her wedding gown. The white silk dress is machine embroidered with text in both English, native language of her husband, and her native tongue Swedish. There are two motifs. The English text is contained within circles and details memories of their times together. Marking the background is the Swedish text, which "explains [her] feelings for [her] husband" and is interspersed with embroidered hearts. The embroidery is in a variety of fonts. (Apropos of Rita Valley's book, I couldn't help but think of a ransom note. Perhaps he kidnapped her heart...) Ohrn-McDaniel's piece could be cited as an example of wearing one's heart on one's sleeve if not for the fact that it is a sleeveless gown.

Nicholas Knight is represented in the show with a wall drawing. Entitled "Silence (Wittgenstein)," it is a diagram in pencil and with vinyl lettering of a sentence from the philosopher's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Knight dissects the structure of the sentence in both English and the original German. Deconstructing meaning becomes a visual and geometric process. In good English class fashion, he is dissecting the grammar into its components based on their relationships. But he also fashions a schematic drawing that has its own compositional integrity.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Suzan Shutan solo show and opening (in Providence)

Bannister Gallery
600 Mount Pleasant Ave., Providence, RI (401) 456-9765
Suzan Shutan: Dimensional Drawings
Through June 29, 2007.
Artist's reception: Thurs., June 21, 5-9 p.m.

Press release

Local artist Suzan Shutan is having her first solo show in 10 years. Unfortunately for us, it is in Providence. But for anyone interested in a little I-95 road trip, I wanted to pass the info along.

Suzan Shutan is an installation artist working site specifically. Her current work focuses on a visual exploration of line, as it appears in physical, scientific and mystical dimensions.

Shutan received her M.F.A. from Rutgers University and her B.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts. She is a recipient of various awards and grants, including an Artslink International Award, an Art Matters Grant, and an Artist Residency at Yaddo.

She has exhibited in Canada, Colombia, Sweden, Portugal, and East Berlin and Freiburg, Germany, as well as at the Alternative Museum in New York City, the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut, and the Laguna Beach Art Museum in California.

June 21 also happens to be 3rd Thursday in Providence. What that means is, you can hop on a free bus that will come to the gallery around 5:30 PM and travel to all the Providence galleries and museums including RISD, then, return you to Bannister Gallery at Rhode Island College before evening's end.

Window shopping for images

City Gallery
994 State St., New Haven, (203) 782-2489
Phyllis Crowley: The Looking Glass
June 1—24, 2007

The photos in Phyllis Crowley's City Gallery show are all shot through (or off of) some kind of surface, be it a window, screen, fabric or plastic. The traditional nature of looking is challenged by this. Rather than focus on the object in the way our vision normally does, Crowley focuses on the layer between us and our default focus of attention.

Several of the images are shot through glass wet by dew or rain. Our impulse would be to wipe away the moisture to see what's beyond the glass, what is obscured. But Crowley instead shoots what we would wipe away and captures images both natural and beautiful.

In the vertical image "Streamers," we see emerald leaves of a plant through a layer of glass or plastic. The layer is covered with moisture, some of which has rolled down the surface in beaded rivulets. These trails vary in their intensity. In their varying weights of light and dark and their uneven flow, they resemble a thicket of spindly trees.

"Miami Dew" is shot through a window covered with moisture. It's an abstraction of light and dark and subtle tones of blue, green, red and orange composed of thousands of water bubbles. It is an inviting composition, almost Pointillist, but I was bothered, as I looked closer, by a softening of the focus toward some of the edges.

Phyllis Crowley stops and looks. I mean, really looks—what am I seeing here?—and she finds in that looking compositions that other photographers might reject precisely because the "real" subject is being obscured. In "Speckled Sky," we view a tree (or telephone pole) and a couple of buildings situated among greenery through a window. The world beyond is soft focus, pastels, bathed in warm light. But in the foreground, the window frame on the right is a deep black and the glass is encrusted with dust. Looking through this physical scrim feels akin to viewing the world through an emotional scrim of isolation and abandonment.

With "House Divided," we are looking out through dirty broken glass spotted with white paint and tints of rich bluish-green. Some of the images are striking merely as abstract compositions with color. Three in a row on the back wall—"Blue Cube," "Hot Chili" and "Poseidon"—read as engaging geometric abstractions.

Viewing these works made me consider the larger idea this show could encompass: The way we see the world is, in large part, due to the prism through which we view it. In these images that prism is a surface, such as the dirty window in "Speckled Sky" or the screened fencing in "Screened Out." But in everyday life, that could be a whole network of deep-rooted assumptions, prejudices, etc. Our belief system, hiding behind the rubric of received wisdom. What we consider "common sense" colors or filters our perceptions, often without our awareness.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Is pro wrestling fixed?

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Four Solo Exhibitions
May 12—July 1, 2007

Four of the six artists chosen in Real Art Ways 2006 Open Call for emerging artists have solo shows in the main gallery at Real Art Ways. (One of the other two, Heather Beard, had a show in Real Art Ways' Real Room that just closed. The sixth artist, Sabrina Marques, showed her paintings in the Real Room the month before Beard.)

Shaun Leonardo makes art out of the eternal questions of "who am I?" and "who can I transform myself into?" The answer to the second question is only partially answered by the photos, objects and video depicting Leonardo in the role of "El Conquistador." As El conquistador, the buff Leonardo dons a Mexican wrestling mask, a 14-foot red velvet and silk cape and bloodstained painter's pants.

Four large and alternately black and white and color photos portray Leonardo aka El Conquistador posed in the entrance to a bank vault, on a snowy hillside, in a dark narrow hallway or, more formally, in a studio setting with a wide, gaudy World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Champion's belt. One wall showcases a series of C-prints of Leonardo in performance as "El Conquistador vs. the Invisible Man." In these spectacles, he mimes a vigorous, acrobatic wrestling match against an invisible opponent. In the video room, a DVD loop plays showing the performances.

Using—embodying—a cartoon figure from popular culture, Leonardo, in effect, wrestles with the concept of identity. For someone like me, who has no particular interest in professional wrestling, American, Mexican or otherwise, it's a surprisingly supple metaphor rich with symbolism. For Leonardo, the character and performance are not ironic cutouts. He wrestled in college and is a serious devotee of the theatric and masculine acting-out of professional wrestling.

As an American of Guatemalan and Dominican ancestry, he adopted the Mexican-style mask in part as an identification with his Latin heritage. But it is also in some measure a critique of the way dark-skinned wrestlers were depicted in the American TV matches of his youth. According to an article in the Hartford Courant, Leonardo was, understandably, appalled at the racial stereotypes in American pro wrestling.

The term for wrestler in the Latin context is luchador. This strengthens the metaphor: the root "lucha" is Spanish for "struggle." Leonardo's art is a multi-layered struggle, ripe with symbolism. The mask that both hides and constructs identity. The constant tension faced by individual identity within socially constructed space and culturally determined (particularly pop culture) iconography. There is the struggle over what it means to be masculine and the tension between ethnic pride and affection for an American pop culture that views and treats you as an outsider. And there are the back flips across the boundaries of what is "Art" with a capital "A" and what is entertainment. (In the video and photos of his performance we see audience reactions ranging from unmitigated delight to determined skepticism.) And finally, there is the Invisible Man, who symbolizes his struggle with invisibility in society, akin to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But it could also be read as that part of Leonardo and all of us that is both external and internal. And when we finally get our Invisible Man pinned to the mat, isn't it always the case that he/she executes the perfect move and slips free?

Nadya Volicer has created a site-specific installation. Entering "Kite Walk" is like stepping into a phantasmagoric forest. Volicer has taken the found materials of advertising circulars, envelopes, colored paper, buttons and more to create a setting that has the feeling of both an exterior park-like environment and an interior architectural space. A short entry path feeds into a square path. Dozens of large and small diamond-shaped kites are suspended from the ceiling by ultra-light fishing line. They are anchored to the ground by buttons. The ground itself is formed out of gently rolling mounds covered over, quilt-like, with paper.

The kites are like trees, fixed in place but also gently moving in the breeze, seemingly alive. The pathway is composed of the same materials but is sewn together in tight linear knots, given it the texture of gravel. The materials, processed from the natural world, are recycled into a simulacrum of the natural world. It is inviting and colorful but ultimately fragile and temporary.

With her three sculptures, Jillian Conrad is interested in using "sculpture as a tool for creating connections between the ordinary stuff of everyday life and the singularity of human experience." The smallest, "Gully," is charming in a New Age kind of way. A nondescript cardboard box sits on the gray concrete floor, one corner propped up on a wood block. A profusion of shiny sequins are layered in the center between two inner folds. An overhead light shines into the box on a diagonal, reflecting shiny phantoms onto the white wall. It illustrates, Conrad notes in her artist statement, that "beneath every opaque, anonymous surface there lies an essential luminescence." (Does this include Dick Cheney?)

The other two sculptures, "Heavy Light" and "Lay of the Land" use, respectively, charcoal, foam and paint and wood, plaster and paint to model natural forms. With "Heavy Light," cut foam panels are painted black and covered wit coarse and fine charcoal. Occupying one corner of the space they create an imposing silhouette. The "light" in this case would be the foam material. But the richness of the blacks, the texture of the charcoal and the height of the peak lend an imposing sense of weight to the form—some heavy rock.

Fay Ku's "Surface Tension" is a series of drawings in the East Asian tradition. Like Leonardo, Ku is an American of non-European background whose art is informed by that fact. On large sheets of white paper, the drawings are mostly pencil with touches of watercolor. Over the series of 10 drawings, Ku portrays children—specifically girl children—in a progression that advances in technology while deepening in cruelty.

The characters are in boats, fishing. They are at sea, figuratively and literally. It is only in the third panel, where the sailors have harvested an abundance of fish, that a temporary harmony prevails. From a solitary small dinghy to increasingly sophisticated vessels, the characters act out scenarios of plunder, murder, war, repression and rape. There is a cuteness to the imagery that is belied by the savagery of the situations. In one drawing, five girls chortle at the tableau of two other girls hanging limp from the masts of their boat. But the fate of the five girls may already be determined. The individual boats in which each is seated are shaped like coffins.

The backgrounds of most of the drawings are empty. The exception is the final drawing. In this image, a lone girl in a yellow rain slicker stands astride a paddle wheel facing down a cresting wave. It is a final stand as the angry sea rises up to reclaim its own.

The answer, by the way, to the title of this post is, "Yes."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Factory work

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Heather Beard
May 17—June 17, 2007

Heather Beard, a photographer and video artist whose work is presently showing in Real Art Ways' Real Room, is one of six selected artists from the Hartford-based contemporary art organization's 2006 Open Call. Her images and video, she writes in her artist statement, document "spaces between presence and absence." For this series, she has explored shuttered factory sites including the former Hathaway Shirt factory in Maine and the defunct Bethlehem Steel mill in Pennsylvania. This small show features one video and about a half dozen large color prints.

"When the Bough Breaks" is a three-minute digital video shot within one of the vacant industrial spaces. It is composed as a diptych, juxtaposing a sequence on the left in which the videographer's hair billows in a breeze in the foreground with a sweeping broom on the right. In the video on the right, we are first looking up through the hair at daytime skylights. But the image soon dissolves into the factory in darkness, while the hair continues dancing carefree. On the right we are offered a floor's-eye view of the straw broom, slowly sweeping the dust and debris in the daylit emptiness. The sequence ends with the broom being tossed out onto the floor.

In her artist statement, Beard notes that she was motivated to sweep because she found brooms in the shirt factory where she was photographing. Her act echoes the act performed ritually when the plant was open but its present pointlessness makes it absurd. Beard states that the cleaning ritual "most likely" was performed by a woman. While that would be true in a domestic home environment, I think in the industrial environment that task more likely would have been assigned on the basis of race than gender. Be that is it may, there is a lot of emotional resonance in this short non-narrative film. It is created by choices of light and dark and by the contrast between the floating freedom of the hair and the labored, resigned deliberateness of the sweeping.

The photos have a mournfulness, rife with a sense of abandonment. Beard's own occasional appearance within the frame is as a ghost: seen in shadow, or as a reflection, or captured phantom-like in a long exposure as in "Neither One. Nor Two." Absence is indicated by the posted newspaper obituary of a former worker, empty chairs and stained, uncleaned floors. The compositions are stark, beautiful, dramatically lit and deeply moving.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Dressing room

50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
101 Dresses
May 9—June 23, 2007
Fashion show: Sat., June 16, 2:45 p.m. on the New Haven Green
Talk by Helena Estes: Sat. June 16, at Artspace at 3 p.m.

Clothing is a surface that hides a surface. And in contemporary art, there is a lot of interest in both surface and hidden, or obscure, meaning. 101 Dresses, the present show at Artspace, was inspired by The Hundred Dresses, a children's book that wore its meaning on its sleeve. But this wide-ranging show is stitched together from a variety of media and often takes the concept of deconstruction literally.

Connecticut native Eleanor Estes wrote The Hundred Dresses in 1944. It tells the story of Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant girl in the post-World War I who suffers the cruelty of her teasing schoolmates. Poor, withdrawn and always wearing the same clean blue dress, she becomes the target of jibes from popular girl Peggy after claiming to have "a hundred dresses home." Eventually, the taunting prompts her father to leave the town and move the family to the city where "No more holler Polack. No more ask why funny name. Plenty of funny names in the big city." But before they move, Wanda leaves behind drawings—beautiful drawings—of 100 dresses that win a class contest in her absence. Their beauty stuns her classmates, particularly the sensitive Maddie, into reflection.

The Hundred Dresses is a story about tolerance and difference but also about the deceptive meaning of surface appearances. Linda Lindroth, co-curator of the show with Artspace curator Denise Markonish, began mulling the idea for the show while doing research on Estes' book. Learning that Estes was a Connecticut, author, Lindroth initially hoped to time the show to coincide with the 2006 centennial of Estes' birth. When that couldn't be arranged, the plan became 101 years and 101 dresses.

Fashion in contemporary art is the loose theme. And in speaking fashion here, we are talking almost wholly women's fashion. While there are male artists represented in the show, almost all the garments and figurative imagery relate to women and women's clothing.

Lindroth says the show is a mix of invitees and artists who responded to an open call. Among the invited or solicited works are an R. Crumb drawing that originally ran in The New York Times Magazine, Yoko Ono's Cut Piece video from 1965 and an Andy Warhol silk-screened paper "Campbell's Souper Dress" circa 1968. The Warhol dress, which now sells for a pretty penny on Ebay, was originally available from the soup company for $1.25 plus two soup labels. Underground comix artist Crumb's drawing depicts his wife Aline, also a cartoonist, commenting on the fashionable dress and designer shoes she is modeling. In the Ono video, shot be the Maysles Brothers at Carnegie Hall, she sits with zen-like impassiveness while audience members cut at cut away her dress until she is left dressed only in bra and underpants. It is shown side by side with a much lower quality video of a 40th anniversary repeat performance in Paris.

Like the performative deconstruction of Yoko Ono's dress, several of the other works in the show tug on the loose thread. Karen Shaw's "Base-Ballgown" drapes an unraveled Derek Jeter Yankees' t-shirt over a mannequin, its disassembled netting of fiber twisting elegantly to the floor. With "Seams (Green Dress)," Jean Shin displays just the seams and zipper of a green dress, the garment as a harness. One hundred and sixty-six nylon zippers and thread make up Jemma Williams' "Zipper Dress."

There are several recurring motifs in the show. One is of the dress made of unconventional materials. Referencing a Paco Rabanne designer's dress from the 1960's that used small aluminum plates, the Studio 5050 collaborative team created "Day-For-Night," a dress composed of circuit boards, solar cells, RGB leds and jumper connectors, just the thing to light up the nightlife. Artist Ari Tabei is represented by "Dress for Today #1." The "dress" is made up of cast latex bubbles and is accompanied by a video of Tabei modeling the cumbersome outfit. Using the same material, artist Rachel Vaters-Carr created latex castings of her torso, the dress as an almost literal "Second Skin." And in this case, it can be scrunched up and stored in a diaphragm case. And, in the "does this garment breathe?" department, there is Zoe Brookes' "Bag Lady Ballgown #2," a layered piece of stylish formal wear composed of layered Target plastic shopping bags and other discarded materials. According to Lindroth, some of the bags "have air in them to give it some 'poof.'" So I guess the answer would be "yes," this garment does breathe!

While those dresses could all be worn—if not comfortably—the same cannot be said of "Dress Undone," an installation by Aicha Woods. She used wood veneer to create a swirling dress-like form that is suspended from the ceiling. Lindroth notes that Woods' approach to the material is similar to that of "a fashion designer falling in love with a piece of fabric and thinking 'What am I going to do with this?'" The answer was to arrange it in swirls of ruffles and layering that hangs gracefully and skirts the floor.

Other references between works include recurring paper doll motifs, feminist-inflected works and commentary on women's roles. For example, Bob Taplin's tongue-in-cheek "Staircase Monument to the Working Woman" features four small bronze statues of women on a staircase-like wooden base. On the bottom step, an exotic dancer is bent over at the waist and peers back through her legs. At the top stands a woman in corporate dress hailing a cab. Carey McDougall's "Nobody's Wife, Nobody's Mother" pairs digital audio with an embroidered cotton dress. The stitching in this contemplative work ponders the issues of women's fears about life and love.

"We didn't set out to say 'we need a doll motif, etc.,'" says Lindroth. "They just came. We were able to include all these different themes because artists are tackling all these broad themes."

As with most Artspace shows, 101 Dresses is notable for the way it tarts up conceptual and intellectual depth in an approachable and engaging fashion.

"The most exciting part is that people are relating to it. When we had the opening, everybody was smiling. It was like a Happening from the 1960's and 70's where there was all this energy from making things and creating environments," says Lindroth. Dresses, she notes, are something that everybody knows and understands. "There's something about this show that is universal. You don't get a lot of shows that just anybody can walk in off the street and figure out and this show did that."

This Saturday, June 16, in conjunction with 101 Dresses and as part of the Village of Villages and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, there will be a fashion show by Artspace Teen Docents at 2:40 p.m. on the New Haven Green. It will be followed at 3 p.m. by a talk at Artspace by Helena Estes, daughter of The Hundred Dresses author Eleanor Estes. Curators Lindroth and Markonish worked with Helena Estes from the beginning, Linda Lindroth says, "to make sure this show was inspired by her mother's book but not about the book."

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Looks good with the furniture

The River Street Gallery @ Fair Haven Furniture
72 Blatchley Ave., New Haven, (203) 776-3099
Industrial & Personal Subjects Depicted in Paintings by Steven DiGiovanni
Through June 30, 2007

"When I was in grad school, I would never have thought I would show my work with furniture," says painter Steve DiGiovanni. We're talking about his work in the River Street Gallery hosted by Fair Haven Furniture. About a dozen of DiGiovanni's paintings hang on the walls in a large showroom of tony hand-crafted beds, nightstands, sofas and coffee tables.

"But I really got into the warmth of this space, and finding a place to hang things," DiGiovanni continues. "I think [the paintings] blend effortlessly into the furnishings."

There has long been a streak of sly, often dark, occasionally self-lacerating humor in DiGiovanni's paintings. He has specialized in obscure figurative narrative works. His subjects often uncomfortably share claustrophobic interiors, noirish apartments where alienation, desire and ennui fester. DiGiovanni employs an ever-shifting repertoire company of models-friends, other artists, his fiance Chisato and himself (always depicted in less than flattering terms). Along with the figurative works, DiGiovanni has regularly crafted riveting industrial landscapes, initially inspired by time he spent living in Brooklyn.

The works on display in Industrial & Personal Subjects Depicted in Paintings were painted in the past three years. Most of them feature his muse Chisato, either posed in offbeat domestic interiors or incorporated into industrial compositions.

DiGiovanni tells me that he has recently been working at overlapping imagery. He directs my attention to the oil painting—they are all oils except for one—"Untitled (Sexy Dress)." My mental reaction is "Good Lord!"

"I wanted to do a portrait of Chisato and I thought it would be fun to play with overlapping her with an industrial landscape," DiGiovanni explains. "I wanted to play with the quasi-Cubistic deconstruction of her form into industrial forms."

His idea was to realize an image that would read cohesively at two levels, as an industrial image and as an interior. Fundamentally, the painting depicts Chisato in a short dark dress, sitting at a kitchen table set with a couple of goblets of red wine. But, as if in a CGI-created scene from a Terminator movie, the walls of the apartment kitchen become transparent, revealing an imaginary factory. The floor isn't linoleum but rather metallic scaffolding. And some of Chisato's form is deconstructed as an industrial skeleton. Typical of his work, the figure has a believable grace and the industrial forms have a chilly verisimilitude.

"Untitled (Sexy Dress)" took some four months to complete. "Festival of Floats (Handa City, Japan)," the most recent work in the show, is the only acrylic painting and has a much looser gestural approach. DiGiovanni describes it as "the most fun painting I've had in years. There was no work involved. It was pure visual self-indulgence."

"For all intents and purposes, I felt I had to reinvigorate what I was doing for myself," DiGiovanni says.

He recently acquired a digital camera. It promotes, he says, a "kind of image scavenging." He re-photographed the cover of a tourist guidebook, capturing a blurry image of a festival in Japan where they parade ornate floats. He started the painting with acrylics because they were handy. Because they dry much faster, they offered "a rapid way to realize the basic structure." With no clear idea where he was headed—not usually the way he works—he started making marks with the acrylics, using the festival image as a touchstone. His plan was to just cover the canvas with acrylic medium and then paint oils over that.

"But I got into the acrylics. And the thing is, you can paint almost at the speed you're thinking," says DiGiovanni. "When I was painting the crowd, I instantly started deconstructing it by wetting the canvas and letting the acrylic bleed like watercolors. It became stream of consciousness."

The result is a painting unlike the others in the show. Forms are suggested more than defined, with something of an exception in the inclusion of an image of Chisato on all fours wearing a cat mask. DiGiovanni allows some of the surface of the cannvas to show through and also decorates the space at the top of the composition with Constructivist diagonals. It was a release for an artist who says he always has "a battle with the desire to overly describe things."

Of course, his success in "describing things" has always been one of the pleasures for those of us who admire his work. "Festival of Floats (Handa City, Japan)" rewards close attention but I certainly found myself most impressed with "Untitled (Sexy Dress)" and two other oil paintings, "Studio with Figures" and "Untitled Industrial (with Golf Course)."

In the former, Chisato and her daughter Rachel sit posed as models in a small apartment studio while the paint-smeared artist—DiGiovanni—works in the background on a canvas that we can't see. But we can guess at its style. A number of completed 'paintings' in a European Modernist kitsch style hang on the apartment walls and clutter the floor. None of the figures engage each other. The artist attends to his canvas. Chisato gazes off to the right, looking beyond the composition. Rachel is plugged into a Discman, a halo ringing the profile of her head. A playful cat at Chisato's feet is the one note of interactive disruption in this otherwise wry portrait of domestic alienation.

"Untitled Industrial (with Golf Course)" is a tour de force on several levels. Although DiGiovanni doesn't refer to photographs or real power plants, he renders a convincing depiction of industrial metastasis. The emotional impact of the behemoth network of pipes, towers, tanks and smokestacks is heightened by DiGiovanni's keen attention to lighting. The human element is introduced with a fillip of tongue-in-cheek social commentary. While workers in hardhats stand on elevated platforms and take in a raging industrial fire off in the distance, a tiny figure, the owner of the means of production, in the lower right practices his shots on an incongruously situated putting green.

"It's fun doing these industrial things," says DiGiovanni. "I feel like I can dig and navigate through these spaces like in an architectural way."

And it's well worth navigating through the attractive furniture to check out his creations.